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Agile doesn’t matter if you don’t know your customer

For a successful digital transformation, learn from customer success teams, not agile coaches.

If you’re working to create a product-led culture or embarking on a digital transformation, insights from your customer success team, not agile coaches, will provide the greatest likelihood of success. The typical pattern for most companies is to race to staff cross-functional teams to unify previously siloed organizational structures that separated the business from IT.

Their recipe is as follows:

  • Hire external Agile coaches to impose a new set of meetings with rules of engagement based on Scrum.

  • Reassign anyone with the job title BA or Project Manager to Product Manager or a Scrum Master.

  • Introduce arbitrary new KPIs for team success, such as the controversial sprint velocity metric (i.e., the number of story points completed).

  • The business continues to independently establish a planned feature roadmap at the beginning of the year.

  • Senior leadership measures the success of the new working model based on the teams' ability to deliver against a rigid scope with no room for learning, pivots or impact on desired business outcomes.

Change is hard, and while incremental steps are necessary, if you stop here, the above recipe for superficial transformations will fail to deliver results for your organization.

It makes sense to learn from successful models, borrow ideas that work, and establish guidelines to help manage your organizational change. However, this recipe focuses on regime change and the introduction of new processes for project management—neither of which directly lead to teams delivering more value to your customers. Instead, teams become bogged down by change management rather than rallying around delivering value for the customer and the business.

If your real aim is to foster rapid delivery and innovation through empowered teams, the first step is to ensure that everyone on the team understands the customer and the problem(s) you aim to solve.

The great news is that you likely already have a team of people within your organization who have direct exposure to your customers. Depending on your organizational structure, you may refer to this team as customer support, customer success, or client account management. Customer success teams have insight into how your customers spend their time, understand what jobs they're trying to get done, and can spot areas within your product where your customers tend to get frustrated. Mature customer success teams also tend to have quantitative data about how your customers interact with your product.

Leverage your customer success team to become a product-led organization.

Partnering with your customer success team will benefit the product team as follows:

  • Customer success teams create proximity between the teams that build and the people who use your product.

  • Through proximity to your customers, your product teams will develop a shared sense of empathy, driving alignment across distinct functions.

  • Once the team is aligned to a customer-centered approach, it’s easier to have transparent conversations about what to build (or not to build) to create value for your user and results for your business.

Now, let’s take a deeper dive into each of these tenants. But in order to put this alternative approach in practice, I recommend identifying a target business opportunity for the team to rally around. For the best results from your pilot, try to identify a focus area that meets most of the following characteristics:

  • There is business urgency to address the gap or problem.

  • Business leaders are able to articulate how solving this problem will benefit the customer and the business.

  • The teams won’t be encumbered by too many dependencies on other teams.

  • Other teams won’t be encumbered by too many dependencies on the pilot team.

1. Create proximity between the team and your target user.

Bring all team members—not just customer-facing roles—closer to your user. All team members from the pilot team should spend time learning about and observing the customer.

Observational research and other activities will help teams unlearn assumptions about how users interact with your product and what is important. This context helps the team fall in love with the problem (as opposed to falling in love with an over-engineered solution).

There are many ways to create proximity between product teams and customers, including:

  • Ask your customer success team to share complaints, questions, and compliments they receive from your active users.

  • Work with the customer success team to create user personas to represent different user segments.

  • Start tagging customer support tickets, which are related to the opportunity you’ve tasked the pilot team to address and share them with the team.

  • Ask your sales reps or account managers to conduct a training for your pilot team that mirrors the way they demonstrate the product to clients and prospects.

  • Create venues for the delivery team to ask questions and the customer success team to share anecdotes from their relevant experiences working with users.

  • Create a rotation for members of the pilot team to listen in on support calls and ride along with the support team as they answer live chats or email inquiries.

  • Invite the pilot team to observe user testing and research live.

  • Share screen recordings of users interacting with your product from testing or analytics software.

  • When it's safe, visit users in their natural habitat and observe how they use your product (or products you aim to displace) in the course of their day.

2. Build empathy for your users and align teams around a common purpose.

When building digital products, if you lack empathy with your user, it can be easy to conflate your own bias with how a product might best serve your target user. Conversely, the more exposure we have to others, the easier it is to understand how their experience is different to or the same as our own.

Consider your life experiences outside of product development. How do you feel about the importance of national parks after a weekend camping? Would breaking a bone make you feel differently about the challenges someone would encounter when maneuvering your commute in a wheelchair? Did you feel differently about teacher’s salaries after homeschooling your kids for months?

Witnessing a user struggle with a task first-hand will remind the team to put the user’s needs first when weighing decisions on prioritization and technical design. For example, when a product designer sees how her sleek design renders on an old Dell computer in a warehouse compared to the retina screen Mac she used to build the prototype, she’ll likely adjust her perspective on a number of visual and experience design elements.

To help aggregate learnings about your users from observational research and other activities listed above, encourage the pilot team to capture a user’s experience related to using your software or completing a particular job using an empathy map and/or user journey map.

3. Aligned teams are capable of transparency in decision-making with an emphasis on results.

When product teams are aligned around what is and is not important, they’re less likely to acquiesce to the HiPPO (Highest Paid Opinion). Instead, the team should be able to identify 1-3 key outcomes their work should deliver for the user and the business. Capture these target outcomes in a simple product charter or vision statement to give teams a framework for making decisions as they’re faced with challenges in the course of delivery. Next, teams should identify leading and lagging indicators to create awareness within the team of how they are tracking against their goals.

While each business will establish specific metrics for success, commonly used models include some combination of the factors below:

  • NPS: Notes the likelihood of customers recommending the product, predicting customer loyalty, and lifetime customer value

  • CSAT: Evaluates customer sentiment, which helps the business focus on implementing highly desirable features or pinpointing pressing issues to remedy.

  • Success Rate/Error Rate: Measures whether or not users can successfully complete a task

  • Churn: Tracks the percentage of customers quitting the product in a given period of time, measuring retention or the lack thereof

  • Expansion Revenue: Calculates the percentage of new revenue coming from existing customers, measuring customer growth within the product

  • Acquisition Revenue: Calculates the percentage of revenue coming from new customers, measuring increased market share

When teams have a shared vision of the outcomes, they are charged with delivering for the user and the business and are truly enabled to make decisions on how to prioritize their efforts in service of these goals.

Deliver customer and business value with insights from users.

Reshuffling your organizational structure and imposing a new project delivery methodology in the name of digital transformation is simply not enough. Momentum comes from building a common purpose for your team. Bring focus to delivering customer value by elevating the voices of your user through your customer success team. Get closer to your customer, align your teams around a shared sense of empathy, and enable teams to have transparent conversations to deliver results based on target outcomes (not target velocity).

Winning customer experiences across the machine lifecycle

Winning customer experiences across the machine lifecycle

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